2020: Yes, it truly was the year of the pandemic

Area agriculturalists will remember 2020 for a number of reasons. But the coronavirus pandemic clearly was the dominant, overriding — and sometimes overwhelming — event of the year.

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Various meats were in short supply at times during the coronavirus pandemic. Hugo's Family Marketplace was limiting customers to two packages of fresh ground hamburger as seen Friday, March 27, 2020. John M. Steiner / The Sun

Yes, 2020 brought both widespread drought and, in places, excess rain. Yes, it brought a derecho, "365-day corn," special government payments, more appreciation for agriculture and, until late in the year, continued concern about poor crop prices. And, yes, it brought a much-appreciated smooth harvest.

But first, foremost and always, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the coronavirus pandemic. On a business level, the pandemic affected individual agribusiness operations and the entire food supply chain. On a personal level, it changed the way that farm families and other Americans lived and worked.

For many agriculturalists, the years tend to run together over time, with key events from one year merging in memory with what happened in previous or following years. Not 2020. For everyone who lived through it, 2020 will stand unforgettably as the year of COVID-19.

Here's a quick look back at some 2020 highlights:


  • Many Upper Midwest farmers, especially in North Dakota, remain glum and frustrated over the 2019 harvest. Extraordinarily wet fall weather hampered harvest, forcing some crops, particularly corn and sugarbeets, to be left in fields.
  • The first COVID-19 case in the United States is reported in Washington state.
  • St. Paul, Minn.-based Kemps announces it will close its Southeast Rochester (Minn.) milk plant on June 30. About 125 people work at the plant, which packages fluid milk, cream, half-and-half and other fluid dairy products.


  • A new USDA report shows that the generations-old consolidation of U.S. farms is continuing . One of the few exceptions is cow-calf operations, as well as pasture and rangeland associated with them, in which little consolidation is occurring.
  • Farm income projections for 2020 are mixed. An anticipated decline in federal direct payments is a big factor in the advance estimates.


  • 030920.AG.CornSpringHarvest01.jpg
    Sam Ongstad of Harvey, N.D., says snow has settled and melted some. He says about 15% of the crops in some fields have been lost on field edges. N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

    Cool weather generally prevents an early start to spring planting. Large amounts of still-in-the-field 2019 crops also hamper planting, especially in North Dakota.
  • President Donald Trump declares COVID-19 a national emergency. At the time and later, critics claim he's politicizing the crisis and underestimating the danger.
  • The U.S. Congress passes the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which provides direct payments to Americans and expansions in unemployment insurance.
  • The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, marks its 35th anniversary . American landowners enroll more than 3.4 million acres in the new CRP general signup. Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota enroll a combined 700,000 acres.


  • The U.S. food supply chain is roiled and, in places, overwhelmed by the pandemic. Americans are eating less away from home and more at home, disrupting where and how food needs to be distributed.

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    The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., on April 16. (Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service)
    The U.S. meat industry is especially hard hit. By month's end, workers at 115 meat plants nationwide had tested positive for the coronavirus. In Sioux Falls, S.D., the Smithfield Foods coronavirus hotspot is the biggest single-source of cases in the country.

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  • USDA begins taking applications for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP. More than $10.3 billion ultimately is paid to U.S. ag producers hurt by the pandemic in the initial program.
  • 0061520.AG.PreventedPlanting01.jpg
    Isaac Askegaard (right) unclogs the mud and roots of 2019 corn going through his uncle’s combine. His uncle, Ed Askegaard was operating on a field north of Wolverton, Minn., on May 28. Late harvest leads to late planting, and more prevented-planting insurance payments. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service

    Harvest of some 2019 crops continues , especially in North Dakota. Some corn farmers refer to corn harvested roughly a year after 2019 planting as "365-day corn."
  • But Iowa , South Dakota, Minnesota and to a lesser extent Montana farmers enjoy excellent planting progress. Iowa farmers are far above the five-year state averages for corn and soybeans.


  • Dry conditions grow increasingly worrisome in most of the Upper Midwest, though Minnesota on balance avoids the drought .
  • Reflecting what's happening elsewhere in society, many summer farm show and meetings are conducted online because of the pandemic. "Zoom" takes on a new meaning.
  • Warm temperatures, which continue later into the summer, help to provide many fields with the heat units needed to overcome late planting.


  • Heavy, just-in-the-nick-of-time rains early in the month rescue many failing fields , especially in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. Though some fields already are damaged by inadequate moisture, the rains prevent far greater losses.
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    Some fields in rural Grand Forks County were completely covered in water on July 6, 2020, after extreme rainfall in the area the last days of June and early days of July. (Katie Pinke / Agweek)

    Some communities are hit with intense, damaging thunderstorms. One of the most extreme cases is in Emerado, N.D., where a whopping 11 inches of rain falls in two separate storms during a single 24-hour period; 6- and 7-inch thundershowers are reported elsewhere.
  • Some area farmers finally finish combining 2019 corn .
  • Many livestock producers worry about what they see as extreme volatility in cattle markets after production and sale of U.S. beef were disrupted by the pandemic. They're not satisfied by a USDA report that doesn't say whether the Packers and Stockyards Act was violated.



  • A second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP 2 , is announced. Up to $14 billion is expected to be paid out.
  • Wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington bring huge amounts of smoke to surrounding states, with wildfires in Montana contributing to the problem. Montana ag producers are affected.
  • Prices of some U.S. crops, particularly soybeans , continue to rise. Increased purchases by China are a major factor
  • Continued dry weather accelerates harvest, especially in Iowa and Minnesota.


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    A combine rolls on a sunflower field near Crystal Springs, N.D., in eastern Kidder County on Oct. 10, 2020. Farmers in the state jumped to 24% harvested as of Oct. 12, up from 16% the prior week. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

    Harvest progresses smoothly and wraps up ahead of normal for many crops. Area sugar beet farmers are especially appreciate because of the extremely tough 2019 harvest in which about one-third of the expected crop was left in the ground because of freezing and snow. Now, beet crops come back to normal and sugar price forecasts are better because of normalized imports from Mexico.
  • Former U.S. Senator Mark Andrews, R-N.D., dies at 94 . He's remembered for his strong ag roots in the state and his deep understanding of ag, both at home and in Washington, D.C.
  • In response to cattle market volatility, the U.S. Department of Agriculture begins making small changes and will work with Congress and industry to make more.
  • Snow Harvest .jpg
    Snow across the region slowed a 2020 harvest that had been moving at record pace. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)

    Snowfall late in the month in South Dakota is a mixed blessing. It slows harvest , but also helps to recharge much-need soil moisture.



  • USDA statistics show that 2020 U.S. farm income will rise to one of the highest levels in history , thanks primarily to special, one-time federal payments.
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    The aftermath of a barn fire at a hog facility in Dodge County on Dec. 3, which killed approximately 2,000 piglets. (Noah Fish / Agweek)

    About 2,000 pigs are killed in a barn fire in Minnesota's Dodge County.
  • South Dakota legislators approve the final rules to get the state’s industrial hemp program up and running.

  • 4695dc7e4ef22946ebcb5eeda89da16a.jpg
    Tom Vilsack
    President-elect Joe Biden picks former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to become U.S. agriculture secretary. Vilsack, who led USDA during the Obama administration, is a popular pick with area agriculturalists. But USDA critics say someone new with fresh ideas would have been better.
  • A third round of coronavirus relief payments to farmers is announced. Producers and ag processors left out of previous aid programs this year while be helped this time. Other assistance, including help for renewable biofuels and new benefits for rural health providers, will be available, too.

  • Upper Midwest agriculturalists hope winter or spring precipitation will recharge fields now short of moisture in advance of 2021 spring planting. They also hope the worst of the pandemic is behind them.
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